It started at 40,000 pounds, or about $50,000. Then the competition exploded, with half a dozen bidding paddles raised in the London salesroom, followed by many bids online and by phone.
“The very piano on which ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was composed. The instrument,” intoned auctioneer Oliver Barker as the bidding stopped after reaching seven figures. When Barker’s hammer finally came down at $2.2 million in an online bid, the piano took six minutes to sell, roughly the length of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
That Wednesday sale of Freddie Mercury’s 1973 Yamaha G2 baby grand will always be the highest point of Sotheby’s auction of around 1,400 items from the personal collection of the charismatic lead singer of the British rock band Queen.
Mercury composed many of Queen’s hits on Yamaha. It was originally estimated to sell for at least $2.5 million in Sotheby’s 59-lot evening auction of the most desirable pieces from the collection offered by the singer’s lifelong friend Mary Austin.
Less high-profile items will be sold in two additional evening sales this week, and in three online auctions running until September 13.
Mercury’s sparse collection of artwork and furniture, as well as handwritten lyrics, clothing, stage costumes and other personal effects, remained at Garden Lodge, his neo-Georgian West London home, since his death in 1991. The singer bequeathed half of his royalties. , with the Garden Lodge and its contents, to Austin, who has lived in the house ever since.
“It was important to me to do it the way I felt Freddie would like it,” Austin, 72, said in a news release about his decision to sell the collection. “He loves nothing more than an auction.”
After touring highlights in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, the entire collection was presented in London for a month. More than 140,000 visitors attended the exhibition, with lines sometimes stretching nearly a quarter of a mile.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Freddie’s passions. He almost knew each other. And it’s free,” Neil Leonard, 48, a Queen fan since his early youth, said last week while admiring the handwritten early draft lyrics of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The draft, thought to be from in 1974, shows that Mercury played with the title of Queen’s most famous song “Mongolian Rhapsody.”
On sale Wednesday, that draft is the most valuable of six lyrical manuscripts for Queen classics. Estimated to fetch at least $1 million, it sold for $1.7 million to an online bidder to rapturous applause.
Instead of the stone-faced art professionals who usually attend Sotheby’s sales, the audience of more than 400 was enthusiastic and largely unfamiliar with auction protocols. Every lot was applauded — even a 19th-century painting by Eugen von Blaas failed to attract an initial bid.
The auction lots reflect Mercury’s life as a musician, performer and collector. He once said that he wanted to “lead the Victorian lifesurrounded by beautiful clutter.”
The Garden Lodge is filled with a decorative mishmash of 19th and early 20th century portraits of beautiful women; Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Orientalist furniture; luxury knickknacks from designers like Cartier; and many cat-related ornaments. (Mercury owns at least 10 cats in his life.)
His taste in Western art could, at times, veer into kitsch. But after six tours of Japan with Queen, Mercury became a discriminating collector of Japanese woodblock prints, lacquer and kimonos. About 20 percent of the lots in Sotheby’s sales are related to Japan, with one in three online auctions completely focused on the subject.
One of the few museum-worthy works in the Mercury collection is a beautiful 19th-century colored woodblock print, “Sudden Rain at Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Attack,” by Utagawa Hiroshige. The image influenced many Western artists, including Van Gogh, who painted a version today in Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It sold for $368,718 against a low estimate of $35,000.
More often than not, the magic of Mercury provenance has pushed prices well beyond the levels for similar objects, on which Sotheby’s estimates are based.
The first lot set the tone: A graffiti-covered door from the exterior wall of the Garden Lodge rose to $521,014 from a telephone bidder against a low estimate of just $19,000. A Fabergé gold-mounted agate vesta case, made in Moscow in 1890, later sold to an online bidder for $120,234, more than 10 times the estimate. Mercury’s magnificent Art Nouveau-style Wurlitzer jukebox from the Garden Lodge kitchen was purchased by a bidder in the room for $512,999.
When the unique silver snake bangle that Mercury wore the music video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” rose to $881,717, there were gasps and whoops. The lot, purchased by an online bidder, has an official minimum value of $9,000.
Among the dozens of concert costumes on offer, the jeweled crown and ermine-lined scarlet cloak worn by Mercury on Queen’s 1986 “Magic” tour is a predictable favorite. It sold for $801,560 to Rafael Reisman, a Brazilian exhibition promoter, who raised his arms in triumph when he got the lot. ‘
“We were looking to put together a collection of iconic lots to use for a special immersive exhibition,” said Reisman, 53, who bought four other Mercury lots in the sale. The low estimate is $9,000.
Overall, the sale brought in $15.4 million against a presale low estimate of $6 million. The marathon event lasted over four and a half hours.
Becca Robbins, a Queen fan from Bedfordshire, had never been to an auction before but bid $57,000 on a rainbow-colored satin appliqué jacket worn by Mercury on Queen’s “Hot Space” tour in 1982. It is selling at value of $256,499.
“I owned it for a nanosecond,” said Robbins, 61, wearing a replica of the same multicolored jacket. “But I took something from the exhibition that you can’t put a price on.”